Monday, December 05, 2011

Frederick Cooper on Africa since 1940

Cooper, Frederick. Africa Since 1940: The Past of the Present. New Approaches to African History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

To most westerners, even to many historians, the continent of Africa is a mystery. Most of us have heard recent stories about South Sudan and its years of guerrilla warfare, or about pirates working off the coast of Somalia. Seventeen years ago, we heard the news of genocide in Rwanda and of general elections in South Africa, the official end to apartheid. But many westerners would be hard pressed to name earlier significant events or personalities from the history of Africa.

In order to help fill that gap, Cambridge University Press is now publishing a series of short books called, New Approaches to African History. The first volume to be published was Africa Since 1940: The Past of the Present, by Frederick Cooper. The author is a recognized authority on the history of Africa. After completing the doctorate at Yale, Cooper taught at the University of Michigan from 1989-2001. Since then, he has taught at NYU. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2001.

Cooper begins by saying that in this book he is writing for “general readers, students and teachers.” He observes that many works dealing with “politics, development, or other aspects of contemporary Africa” treat the period since independence “more as background than as a subject for consideration.” By contrast, his intention is to meet the needs of readers “who would like to do more than that, who want to look at the past of the present in a more coherent way” (xi). He stipulates that his focus “is on the continent of Africa south of the Sahara Desert” (12), and claims that in certain ways the 1930s and 40s are just as significant to the recent history of this region as were the various moments of independence, most of which came twenty years or so later. He points to the two stories from 1994 mentioned earlier—genocide in Rwanda and popular elections in South Africa--and says that the colonialism and post-colonialism of twentieth-century African history were the essential precursors to both. Cooper makes this connection by explaining his main ideas.

First, the recent history of sub-Saharan Africa may be divided into the following three parts: a time of development (1940-1973), followed by a era of downturn (1973-1990), followed by an ambiguous, open-ended period which began in 1990. The first period predates the various moments of national independence because, as the author explains, such radical change was precipitated by African aspirations that go back at least as far as the late 1930s. It was during this time that Africans began to recognize and pursue their political and economic potentials. The second period began not long after the decolonization of much of Africa. Spikes in world oil prices beginning in 1973, rising interest rates, and many African countries taking on more and more debt combined to bring about a demoralizing downturn from which many of those nations have never really recovered. For example, in Chapter 5, which features several impressive graphs and tables, Cooper points out that in the decade before 1976, the GNP per capita of Sub-Saharan Africa grew by 20 percent. In the decade following 1976, it fell by the exact same figure, 20 percent. As late as 1996, that measurement had barely passed the level recorded in 1966.

Second, the legacy of colonialism combined with the legacy of African aspirations during the years before independence is the unique historical confluence that makes Africa what it is today. Cooper expresses this idea especially well in the following paragraph:

No word captures the hopes and ambitions of Africa's leaders, its educated populations, and many of its farmers and workers in the post-war decades better than ‘development.’ Yet it is a protean word, subject to conflicting interpretations. Its simplest meaning conveys a down-to-earth aspiration: to have clean water, decent schools and health facilities; to produce larger harvests and more manufactured goods; to have access to consumer goods which people elsewhere consider a normal part of life. To colonial elites after the war, bringing European capital and knowledge to Africa reconciled continued rule with calls for universal progress. To nationalists, a development that would serve African interests required African rule. After independence, new rulers could claim a place for themselves as intermediaries between external resources and national aspirations. But African rulers were in turn subject to criticism for sacrificing development for the people to personal greed (91).

Modern African leaders had learned their political lessons from their colonial predecessors. But, says Cooper, in the absence of a political history that had worked its way from the ground up, and without the economic resources of a European metropole, all such leaders were virtually destined to fail.

Third, the primary political dynamic at work in this history involves what Cooper calls the emergence of the “gatekeeper state.” He explains that leaders of newly-independent nations in Africa sat astride “the interface between the territory and the rest of the world, collecting and distributing resources that derived from the gate itself” (157). The arrangement was practically impossible to handle; and it was mishandled in any number of different ways as Cooper demonstrates in the national case studies he reports in Chapter 7. What was the common denominator among these? The establishment of the gatekeeper state, says Cooper, “made the stakes of control at a single point too high. Politics was an either/or phenomenon at the national level; local government was almost everywhere given little autonomy” (159). In the final chapter, Cooper uses this insight in order to interpret, at least partially, the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. In short, the critical problem was the Rwandan government's “inability to manage the politics of a gatekeeper state in the face of diminishing resources” (191). By contrast, South Africa was a uniquely-different story in the continent’s history. For one thing, the white Afrikaners there did not see themselves as colonists who really belonged somewhere else. Too, before the end of apartheid the South African government, though brutal, had managed to lead the nation to the highest level of prosperity in Africa. Thus, Cooper explains, the Afrikaners’ strong sense of belonging and their tight grip that held until 1994 ironically created for their successors a situation far superior to the ones inherited in other independent nations.

My overview here clearly reveals what Cooper believes are the most comprehensive horizons of recent African history: economics and politics. These are the topics that dominate his discussion. One might compare, for example, the number of references in this book to cultural or religious aspects of Africa since 1940. “Suggested Reading” sections appear at the end of each chapter. The titles listed there might provide good comparisons to Cooper’s approach.